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Len Mullenger:

(1899 - 1963) Complete Chamber Music. Vol 2
Sonata for Violin & Piano a 18'26"
Bagatelle in D Minor for Violin & Piano a 2'17"
Sonata for Clarinet in B Flat & Piano b 13'24"
Sonata for Piano & Cello d 21'51"
Graf Mourja (vn); Alexandre Tharaud (pno) a Ronald Van Spaendonck (clar); Alexandre Tharaud (pno) b  Alexandre Tharaud (pno); Francoise Groben (cello) c
Recorded Paris. Between Oct 1995 & Oct 1997. DDD Naxos 8.553612 [56'06"]

The dates of these four works by Poulenc range from 1932 (the tiny Bagatelle) to 1962 ( Clarinet Sonata ), and overall they give a reasonable picture of his chamber music writing.

The composer himself made no secret of where his musical affections lay. He was happy writing for piano and for wind instruments but not at ease when it came to music for a single string instrument - although confident enough with a body of strings. The Sonata for Violin and Piano we hear on the CD was his third attempt at such a piece. The first (1919) he destroyed, the second (1924) he would not allow to be played and eventually the Sonata was completed in wartime (1942/43 with Ginette Neveu in mind). Even then Poulenc was not happy with it calling it "an utter failure". He was less than fair to himself.

In its three movements much is typical Poulenc. The opening Allegro con fuoco, less fiery than one would expect, has an attractive shared melody, there are the merest hints of Spain in the slightly wistful Intermezzo, then the final Presto brings back the tune again from earlier, and - ushered in by heavy piano chords - the mournful tragico section with its quirky end. Whatever reservations the composer had, the writing shares the work-load around with no apparent problems. The clear recording balance is generally fine, just now and then favouring the piano too much. Fine playing throughout.

The first performance of Poulenc's Clarinet/Piano Sonata was by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein, no less. Its dedication was "To the memory of Arthur Honegger" the first of Les Six to die and ironically it was one of Poulenc's own last compositions. It is a strange work and rather compelling. Much of the inventiveness the composer is known for appears and the mood swings are quite striking even within movements. The opening movement marked Allegro tristemente has three contrasting tempi and mood changes - two allegrettos framing a trés calme passage. A darkly contemplative Romanza middle movement leads into a sprightly ending. No quibbles with the performance or the close recording.

The closing work, the Sonata for Piano & Cello, is the longest, the most interesting and rewarding work on the disc - perhaps because the sound the two instruments make together has more potential than, for instance, a clarinet & piano. The catchy snatch of melody at the very outset, a vaguely Brahmsian passage for the piano, the long melodic lines for the cello in the Cavatine, the subtle inter-passing of phrases in the Ballabile, the imposing "spooky" opening to the Finale and its range of tempo changes that follow - all are specially noteworthy in this appealing work. Splendidly played throughout with a fine recording.

There is nothing here that is over exposed or over recorded and at Naxos price it is well worth investigating.


Harry Downey


Harry Downey

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